Jan Egeland: Will we be ready when a tsunami strikes again?

Aid resembles a lottery in which few win and most lose. This is unacceptable

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From the tsunami to Pakistan, Niger and New Orleans, millions suffered in 2005. But alongside the peril, there was also promise. In 2005, we saw the world unite as never before to provide aid to victims of disaster, advocate for an end to extreme poverty, and push for revitalisation of the UN. We must build on this momentum, and act today to strengthen our ability to save lives tomorrow.

The world has no time to lose. Indeed, 2005 could be the shape of things to come. We will likely see more extreme weather and, with it, increased danger for millions of people. In the cruel calculus of disasters, poor communities are both most at risk and least able to survive.

If nothing else, this year showed us that in our interconnected world, a disaster local in origin can be global in impact. No country, no matter how powerful, is immune. Today's threats - pandemic disease, entrenched poverty and hunger, extreme ideologies, conflict, mass migration and weather-related disasters - transcend borders. They require a truly global response in which solidarity, not charity, guides our approach to assistance. In the 21st century, humanitarian aid is the responsibility of all, and benefits all.

Four changes are necessary. First, we need predictable funding. Imagine if your local fire department had to beg the mayor for money to turn on the water hoses every time a fire broke out. Now imagine numerous fires occurring simultaneously all over the globe, but no money on hand to turn on the hoses. That's the situation faced by aid workers whenever a major crisis erupts.

This hat-in-hand approach to funding relief operations is both dangerous and wasteful. Most lives are lost in the first days following a quake, flood or other disaster. To save lives, aid workers need immediate cash and supplies. Unfortunately, only 10 per cent of the UN's humanitarian appeal is funded in the first quarter of the year. Late funding costs lives. It also costs donors more; the quicker we can respond in a crisis, the cheaper it is.

We can, and we must, do better. To that end, UN member states have approved the creation of a $500m (£289m) Global Emergency Fund to jumpstart relief operations within 72 hours of an emergency. Some $200m has already been pledged to the fund. I call upon all governments, as well as the private sector, to contribute the balance for this vitally necessary fund.

Too often, aid resembles a lottery in which few win, and most lose based on calculations other than need. This is unacceptable. We must move from lottery to predictability so all those who suffer, be they in Pakistan, Malawi or Haiti, receive assistance according to need, not creed, politics, or media attention.

Second, we need stronger coordination. Coordination is essential for saving lives in a crisis. With resources stretched, multiple crises occurring simultaneously, and ever-more aid actors on the front lines, coordination is not a luxury. It's a necessity. Take the tsunami. My office worked with 90 donor nations, 35 militaries, 17 UN agencies, hundreds of NGOs and scores of private companies. The goal: ensure the right aid got to the right people at the right time. And by and large, we succeeded. Given the challenges ahead, however, we must build on today's efforts to improve in the future.

Third, while we should hope for the best, we must prepare for the worst in terms of extreme weather and other disasters. At the year's outset, I suggested donors dedicate 10 per cent of all aid expenditures to disaster preparedness. Let us learn from this year's tragedies, and invest in early warning systems that will save countless lives.

Fourth, let's build on the hope and humanity evinced by millions around the world who came together this year as never before on behalf of the suffering. Be it tsunami victims in South-east Asia or victims of extreme poverty in Africa, the world took notice, demonstrating compassion in action. This year's generosity should be the standard by which we always respond.

In a year when disasters struck nations both rich and poor, the need for a strengthened global humanitarian system has never been more apparent - or more necessary. Let's seize this opportunity. Lives depend on it.

The writer is the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs

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